To hear Nye and Terran discuss their new audio-only musical, Vacant Arcadia, is to hope that they remain collaborators for decades to come.
The fledgling Holophonic Theatre founders’ dedication to inclusive representation in their creations is certainly inspiring. But their mutual appreciation for one another’s skills and the level of commitment they’ve received from like-minded artists around the world to their debut project (for no guaranteed payday) suggests something truly special is afoot.
The two queer Asheville-based creators — who prefer to go by their artistic monikers — became fast friends at a “gothnic” (aka goth picnic) at Riverside Cemetery and soon thereafter advocates for each other’s work. A native of Chicago and longtime poet, Terran has a background in philosophy and physics but had their first play, The Opposite of Entropy, produced by The Magnetic Theatre in summer 2020. Nye hails from Asheville and originally went to college for theater before pivoting to a career in sound design and audio engineering.
While having an all-night hang and art-creation session at Waffle House, Nye suddenly pitched the idea of making a musical. Terran quickly agreed, trusting their more experienced colleague for guidance, and the work began. The result premiered March 18 in the form of 10 episodes, each 30-45 minutes long, and featuring 26 original songs.
Reminiscent of sci-fi films Metropolis and Elysium, with a sprinkling of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Vacant Arcadia takes place in the Fifth Retrograde Economic Zone, an orbital city that’s the premier tourist destination for the wealthy elite. Below, the squalid and overcrowded undercity houses the thousands of staff who keep the FREZ running. In search of escape, five desperate citizens partake in an illegal augmented reality game under the direction of an unstable hacker, but once they discover the city’s greatest secret, they must decide if a new life is worth dying for.
“We tried to lean towards dystopian fiction and cyberpunk influences, but there’s not a lot of that in there,” Terran says. “It’s a very queer space, and we have a lot of queer characters, but it’s not about their queerness. It’s about inescapable poverty and whether it’s a good thing to possess hope and whether a new chance is worth what you risk to take it.”
Nye notes that the COVID-19 pandemic all but necessitated Vacant Arcadia be exclusively an audio production, especially when it came to recruiting global collaborators. Fellow artists were found via Twitter, TikTok and from posting flyers in downtown Asheville. And all who signed on believed in the material to the extent that they were willing to put forth months of their time and talents despite no assurance of financial compensation. (The creators have set up a Patreon campaign, and all of the actors and crew will be paid from ticket sales and donations.) But beyond practicality, eschewing a visual component also made sense for the story they wanted to tell.
“The traditional theater format makes it really hard to have science fiction be convincing with musicals and not just have it be supercheesy and way too overstimulating,” Nye says. “And since we’re doing it in an audio format, we get to do the same thing books do to a certain extent, where we’re able to let people imagine it themselves.”
Terran already considered the project a success after the virtual table read left the cast in tears but believes that the work’s emotional richness will extend beyond the creative team.
“I think this will make people feel things,” they say. “Also, we have one song in it that was written specifically out of my hope that someone will do drag to it someday. And so if that ever happens, I will also be able to die happy.”
As for future Holophonic Theatre projects, Nye notes that there is no road map to help guide them and Terran. Existing audio-only productions are typically one-off experiments from creators not committed to that approach, yet Nye says the absence of “rules” or a prescribed playbook for such endeavors affords even more freedom to tell stories that normalize queer and neurodiverse people, as well as others living on the fringe of society.
“It’s OK to be yourself. That’s huge,” Nye says. “And the whole story of hope in the darkest periods of time does echo a bit with what we’re experiencing right now, even though that wasn’t necessarily what we set out to do in the first place. It just started shifting there — that you don’t always need to have a reason to continue to push and to continue to hope, but it may be rewarding regardless.” theholophonic.com